Will the Thrill: Part I

Editor’s note: Will Bynum, who re-signed with the Pistons last week as a restricted free agent, went undrafted out of Georgia Tech in 2005 and spent part of the next season with Golden State in the NBA and the rest in the D-League, then the next two years in Israel before the Pistons invited him to Summer League in 2008. The following is Part I of an updated version of a story that originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Courtside Quarterly, the official magazine of the Detroit Pistons. Coming Tuesday in Part II: Growing up on the mean streets of Chicago.

When danger is woven so deeply into the fabric of a kid’s life he knows how to time drive-by shootings on the way from the projects to grammar school, is he chasing a dream or fleeing his past when he runs?

Will Bynum never really thought of it like that, because what’s the difference? He was too busy running to think much about why. But when he got thrown in an Israeli prison cell, the floors and walls covered in human waste, the only thing to do was think..

“It was like the climax of a movie, when a guy reaches that moment when his life flashes before him,” Bynum winces, the days spent behind bars in a foreign country still seared in his memory. For what? That’s what he wondered, too.

“I was doing everything right. How does this happen? How does it happen when somebody is trying to do everything the right way, he winds up in prison?”

Growing up on Chicago’s southside, moving from project to project, one more desolate and dangerous than the next, Will Bynum had seen that all his life. A kid turns the wrong corner and gets a gun waved under his nose. Wears the wrong color, winds up on the wrong street and gets beaten to a pulp. Gets pulled over by the cops on some trumped-up charge or another.

Will Bynum refused to believe he’d never get out of that Israeli prison, but the hours dragged as the horror of the reality pounded at his temples.

“The worst thing I’ve ever been through. Urine and feces all over the walls, all over the floor, the bathroom, the sink, the toilet, the shower. It was all the same thing. So much would go through my mind. Before I’d know it, eight, nine hours would pass, I would lay there. Everything was going through my mind – my mom, my daughter, everything. Small things. It was a mixture of every emotion.

“I’ve been through a lot of situations in Chicago, growing up, where you get pulled over for no reason or guys get beat up or killed for no reason, go to jail. My brother was a victim of that before. I’ve seen that. It was second nature to me.”

There was nowhere to run in jail, not with the stench of those feces-stained walls closing in on him, so Will Bynum did what he could to chase his dream.

“I just told myself that I knew I didn’t do anything wrong, this wouldn’t last, and after that I started doing toe raises and situps and pushups. I was like, man, when I get out, I’m going to kill them on the court.”

Joe D Makes a Call

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Joe Dumars made every critical decision that shaped arguably the greatest decade in Pistons history once Bill Davidson tapped his shoulder and named him team president on June 6, 2000. Signing Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups as free agents. Trading Jerry Stackhouse for a young Rip Hamilton. Orchestrating the complex three-team deal with the clock ticking on the 2004 trade deadline to land Rasheed Wallace. Selecting a skinny kid from Kentucky named Tayshaun Prince 23rd in a weak draft year.

But some things get delegated to the trusted few admitted entry to his inner circle. That’s how Will Bynum, who’s defied long odds from the time he was growing in Rose Robinson’s womb, almost missed out on his chance at becoming a Detroit Piston.

Among those lesser chores is filling out the team’s annual Summer League roster. Summer League is essentially minicamp staged for the benefit of draft picks taken a few weeks earlier, perhaps for a handful of young players who’ve already spent a year or two in the NBA but still require seasoning before being entrusted with broader roles.

The rest of the roster is stacked with players intended to put those two, three or four guys who’ll be part of the NBA team when the season opens in a few months in the best possible position to succeed. Since the Pistons’ 2008 Summer League roster was going to include Arron Afflalo, a shooting guard coming off of his rookie season, and draft choices Walter Sharpe and Trent Plaisted, both forwards, finding a point guard who could get the Pistons into their half-court offense was a priority for Scott Perry and George David in the days leading up to and after the ’08 draft with the Las Vegas Summer League looming.

They went through their database of candidates: players just out of college who went undrafted, guys with a year or two of spotty NBA experience under their belts looking to land an invitation to training camp, D-Leaguers with maybe one or two NBA-ready skills that would qualify them to be a No. 3 point guard, guys who’d made their mark in international ball and were ready to try their hand at the greatest basketball league in the world.

They settled on one name: Dee Brown. A rocket who’d teamed with backcourt partner Deron Williams to lead Illinois to the 2005 national championship game, Brown had yet to find his niche in the NBA. While Williams had parlayed that great season into becoming the No. 3 pick of Utah a few months later, Brown – after exploring his draft status that spring, as well – went back to Illinois for a less rewarding senior season and became the 46th pick, also by Utah, in 2006.

He spent an unremarkable rookie season with Utah, but was urged to give Europe a try the following year to learn the nuances of playing point guard, the role Williams – despite his greater physical stature – had held during their three years together at Illinois. It was after that season in Turkey that Perry and David recommended Brown to Dumars for the Summer League roster.

And that was OK by Joe D. He had a fondness for Brown, remembering the fire he brought to the floor in winning the Big Ten Player of the Year award. But in watching tape of a potential Pistons draft target who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, another ex-college player who fit the Brown mold caught Dumars’ eye.

“I’m getting ready for the draft and watching tape of Omri Casspi,” Dumars recalls now of Casspi, who ultimately became the No. 1 pick of Sacramento in the 2009 draft. “And I notice Will Bynum. So I asked him, ‘George, is that Will Bynum playing for Maccabi?’ ‘Yup. He’s their point guard.’ So I asked George for a few more tapes of Casspi. I’m taking them home to watch them that night. But I’m really taking them home to watch Will Bynum.”

The next day, Dumars cornered David, Pistons personnel director.

“What’s Will Bynum’s situation?”

“His contract with Maccabi is up. He’s a free agent, but he’s got a lot of offers from other European teams.”

“We should get him on our Summer League roster.”

“Well, we’ve already made a commitment to Dee Brown. Should we break our commitment to him?”

“No. We don’t do things like that. We’re not going down that road.”

Fast forward another week or so. Now the draft has come and gone. David calls Dumars.

“We might be able to get Will Bynum, after all. Dee Brown got guaranteed money from Washington. He still wants to go to Las Vegas with us, but he’d like to leave midway through to join Washington.”

“That’s OK,” Dumars replied. “Tell him he can report to Washington right now. We won’t take half.”

Then it was Joe D’s turn to make a phone call. To Will Bynum, just back from Israel, in his native Chicago.

“Will, it’s Joe Dumars.”

“No. It’s really you?”

“Yeah, it’s really me. I’m calling you about Summer League, but I’m also calling to tell you this. Beyond Summer League, you’re good enough to make our team. Not only are you good enough to make our team, you can be really good. You can be a really good NBA player. You’re a guy who can make a huge difference for us. Come to Summer League, play great, you’re going to make our team and this is going to work out for you. Will, this is the break of a lifetime. Take it.”

“I will. I won’t disappoint you.”

Then he hung up the phone and did what Will Bynum had done since he could remember: grab a basketball and head to the gym. Run to the gym.